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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Entry updated 2 April 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (2014). Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a Marvel Studios production. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel Comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Cast includes Jenny Agutter (cameo), Chris Evans, Maximiliano Hernandez, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Toby Jones, Stan Lee (cameo), Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford and Sebastian Stan. 136 minutes. Colour, 3D (converted).

The conspicuous (at times almost excessive) technical competence of this mid-series episode in the Captain America subseries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprise makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier a remarkably effective successor to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which initiated Phase One of the vast Marvel sequence. The action begins two years later. Steve Rogers (Evans), an adult who wears his Captain America costume without disguising his Identity, is picked up in Washington by Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), the Black Widow, to participate in a rescue mission. A S.H.I.E.L.D. ship has been hijacked (in the Cinematic Universe, S.H.I.E.L.D., also written SHIELD, now stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division); Captain America is needed to rescue Agent Jasper Sitwell (Hernandez), who is irreplacable. While accomplishing this very flashily – CGI is used in every action sequence, with predictable skill and impersonality – he sees Romanoff transferring data from the ship Computer into a flash drive, which perturbs him, as theirs was solely a rescue mission.

If this seems odd, it must not be forgotten that Rogers's sense of probity has survived his decades as a Corpsicle, and reflects a patriotism and sense of personal honour directly evocative of the American national mood at the very start of World War Two. In the world of 2014, he is a kind of Holy Fool; in this second episode set in this current incarnation, his learning curve steepens. When Rogers reports his misgivings to his old buddy Nick Fury (Jackson) at SHIELD headquarters, Fury tells him no one can be trusted. (It is eventually made clear that Fury and Romanoff are, in the end, to be trusted.) Fury then takes Rogers to an Underground installation, directly beneath Washington, which houses advanced-Technology helicopters designed to prevent terrorist attacks, like Nine/Eleven in New York. This does nothing to decrease Rogers's distress at the dissimulation and Paranoia that mark his new world. He visits the Captain America exhibition at the Smithsonian, and is moved (again) at a mannequin in the costume worn by Bucky Barnes (Stan), his greatest buddy (as per Timely and Marvel Comics dating back as far as 1941).

The action now begins to accelerate. Fury meets with Defense Secretary Alexander Pierce (Redford), advocates a delay to the launching of the anti-terrorism helicopters and, after leaving Pierce, is assassinated during an extremely extended display of special effects, in the course of which he passes the flash drive on to Rogers, who is unable to prevent his eventual death as his masked opponent seems to have equal Superpowers, which seem mainly to comprise supernatural competence in martial arts. Pierce calls Rogers in and interrogates him; leaving the building, Rogers is attacked by SHIELD forces led by Jasper Sitwell but escapes after much CGI; Romanoff teams up with him and they use the flash drive to rediscover Rogers's World War Two training camp in New Jersey, at the secret Underground heart of which, in scenes that very closely evoke the underground climax of Edge of Darkness (1985), they discover antique electronic gear, and – his brain locked into a 1960s Computer (see Brain in a Box) – Anton Zola (Jones), former accomplice of the Red Skull, a Marvel Villain dating like Captain America from 1941. The Red Skull (it emerges) was the original founder of HYDRA, a secret cadre dedicated to world rule, created on the grounds that humanity cannot be trusted to cope with freedom. Zola tells them that his master his been successful, and that it is too late: civilization is now too rotten to be saved. Further action sequences demolish the training camp.

As the action accelerates and congests, several things come clear. America is indeed rotting from within, SHIELD has been infiltrated with traitors, and Fury has faked his own death in order to fight back against Pierce, now revealed to be a senior agent of HYDRA (the casting of Robert Redford in this role nicely ties the underlying Paranoia of this film to 1970s predecessors like Three Days of the Condor from 1975). Bucky Barnes has been resuscitated and, deeply brainwashed, has become the Winter Warrior whose powers equal Captain America's. But Rogers cannot bring himself to kill his old buddy in the end, though his refusal to do so almost certainly precipitates HYDRA's plan to use the super helicopters to accomplish Project Insight, during the course of which millions of potential "subversives" will be killed, and governments worldwide will collapse in the panic. In the end, all is saved for the moment: the Winter Warrior staggers into the dusk to prepare for the next instalment; Captain America, wiser but still implacably honourable, faces the future.

But before he dies of his injuries, Pierce manages to whisper defiantly two last words: "Hail HYDRA!" It is a play on words with an obvious point. As several lines of dialogue have made clear, the decline of the post-World-War-Two West – starting with the Cold War, and climaxing with the stupendous triumph of Nine/Eleven, an atrocity which has tricked Western Civilization into eating itself alive, one consequence of its moral deliquescence being the creation of the twenty-first century security-theatre world-state – has from the beginning been HYDRA's doing. After the West descends into self-created terminal chaos, HYDRA will at last be able impose Order on the world. As the film ends, it is clear that Pierce's death has been only a setback. The sequel is Captain America: Civil War (2016). [JC]


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